1967: ?Snoopy vs. The Red Baron? (part 1)
In this column I will use my personal experiences with rock to explore how we listen and relate to music. In other words, I get to brag about all the great concerts I've seen, and along the way occasionally say something semi-profound about art.
It all started with Snoopy. My 40 year love affair with rock music was kicked off by a novelty hit about a cartoon character. The song was “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen. “10...20...30...40, 50 or more/ The bloody Red Baron was rolling up the score... In the nick of time a hero rose/ A funny looking dog with a big black nose.” I was nine years old, and loved that song.
I’m sorry to strain your credibility right off the bat, but there was a time, circa 1965-66, when Peanuts was considered a cutting edge comic strip. I’m serious. People called it innovative for the way it gave children a deep inner life, complete with philosophical musings. It was a hit with college students. It got written up in Life Magazine as the latest cultural phenomenon. And it inspired a huge industry of Peanuts' related products (a cottage industry that continues, of course, to this day).
And one of those products (although I don’t think it was an officially sanctioned product) was a song about Snoopy that captured the ear of a nine-year-old boy. A nine-year-old boy who turned on the radio for the first time, on the chance of hearing it again.
Since I was nine years old, I didn’t understand how radio worked, how songs became hits and then disappeared, so by the time I actually turned on the radio (to WBBF, AM950, Rochester NY) it was 1967, and “Snoopy Vs...” wasn’t much of a hit anymore. (I also didn’t understand how I could have just gone out and bought the damn song, thereby enabling me to hear it as often as I wanted, and, no doubt, driving everyone else in my family absolutely nuts.)
But this bit of missed timing may have been the best thing that could have happened to my musical taste, because 1967 was the greatest year in all rock history. It was an amazing year to start listening to the radio.
Yes, you heard me, the greatest year in all rock history. Sgt. Pepper. Surrealistic Pillow. The Doors. The Who Sell Out. Are You Experienced? Disraeli Gears. And that’s just the top of the list. Can you name another year in which so many great albums were released? No other year comes close.
There’s more to it, though. It’s not just that so many great albums were released that year. It’s that so many innovative albums were released. Every album I listed above took rock music in a new direction. Some people like to argue that 1966 was actually a greater year (and it can boast a very impressive list of albums too, especially for those of us who believe Revolver is actually better than Sgt. Pepper), but 1966 only hinted at the possibilities of rock music. 1967 solidified them. 1967 is the year the music stopped being rock’n’roll, and started being rock. By this I mean it was no longer inherently simple music. It could still be simple by choice, but it could also be as complex as it desired.
Another thing to remember about those albums is that they were all hits. I can’t think of another year in which there was so much correlation between popularity and both quality and innovation. Sure, some of the really innovative albums of 1967 -- Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, the Velvet Underground’s first album -- were not popular, but it still stands as the last year in rock music when innovation could regularly top the charts. Compare this to the punk explosion of 1977, when none of the innovative records were hits.
That is much of what makes 1967 the greatest year in rock music history. It was one of those rare occasions when the best music was regularly on the radio. Just waiting for some nine year old kid to discover it.
Of course, I knew none of that. All I knew was that once I started listening to the radio, there was an incredible amount of great music there. Even for someone whose musical sophistication was on the level of cartoon characters. I was hooked.
Admittedly, what I considered great music at nine and ten wasn’t necessarily the best that was on. I still gravitated to the goofy pop hits: “The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” by The Cowsills; “Incense and Peppermints” by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, and “Happy Together” by The Turtles.* But other, better songs did creep into my consciousness. I firmly remember liking “Ruby Tuesday” and "I Can See For Miles," although it was a couple of years before I discovered who sang either of them, let alone their places in the rock pantheon. I also liked Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s "Something Stupid," which brings up something else different about radio back then -- the same station would play Frank Sinatra and The Who.
And who knows how many songs snuck into my subconscious to trigger, if not recognition, then at least some degree of appreciation when I later encountered them with a more discerning ear.
Finally, there was a contagious level of excitement about music that year, and I’m sure some of that rubbed off. I found listening to the radio exciting because, that year, it was.
It’s impossible to know for sure, but had I first tuned in during some boring year, say 1962 or 1971, I might not have found rock music as interesting as I did. I might not have become an obsessive fan. On the other hand, I might now be penning an essay on how 1962 was truly the greatest year in all rock’n’roll.
In any event, I owe it all to a comic strip dog.
*Even at ten, I understood that “Happy Together” was about not getting the girl. The opening lines, after all, are “Imagine me and you/ I do” (emphasis mine). Or maybe I understood that because I was ten years old, and going through my first (of many) experiences of not getting the girl.